By JOHN HEILPRIN, AP, Feb. 17, 2008
UNITED NATIONS - Russia tried to block Kosovo's independence during a closed-door emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday, saying it is deeply concerned about the safety of Serbs living in the territory.
The discussion among members of the 15-member council continued to expose their divisions on the future of Kosovo. Russia backs its close ally Serbia, while the United States, Britain, France and other European Union members support Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians.
The council met at the request of Serbia and Russia, which argue that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia made earlier Sunday violates a 1999 council resolution that authorizes the U.N. to administer the territory.
The session got off to a rocky start; shortly after it began, the session had to be suspended for a couple hours because of a lack of interpreters.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Serbia's president told him that Kosovo's declaration carries no legal weight, while Kosovo's prime minister assured him he was committed to "equal opportunities and no discrimination" against anyone in Kosovo.
Ban urged all sides to "refrain from any actions or statements that could endanger peace, incite violence or jeopardize security in Kosovo and the region."
The Security Council resolution on Kosovo remains in force and the U.N. "will continue to implement its mandate in the light of the evolving circumstances," Ban said.
Before the session, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow was "highly concerned" about Sunday's decision by Kosovo's parliament in Pristina "to declare unilateral independence of Kosovo."
The past Security Council resolution means the U.N. still runs Kosovo and "it is not obvious at all what could possibly be the legal basis for even considering" Kosovo's declaration of independence," Churkin said.
He specifically addressed the estimated 120,000 Serbs living in enclaves in Kosovo.
"Our concern is for the safety of the Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo," Churkin told reporters. "We'll strongly warn against any attempts at repressive measures, should Serbs in Kosovo decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence."
U.S. and other Western countries said there was little danger to the Serbs in Kosovo and that the 1999 resolution does not preclude Kosovo's independence.
"We've knocked it down over and over again. This is an unprecedented situation, it creates no precedent," Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N., told reporters before the session
Wolff said the United States is not "particularly concerned or sees no particular danger to be worried about" with regards to the safety of Serbs in Kosovo.
"We're pleased by the commitments made to respect for religious and ethnic communities in Kosovo," he told reporters. "We're very much pleased that the declaration also reflects a position of the United States that's longstanding."
Kosovo's 2 million population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, mainly secular Muslims, who do not want to be part of Serbia, a predominantly Christian Orthodox nation.
Kosovo has been under U.N. and NATO administration since a NATO-led air war halted a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.
In April 2007, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended that Kosovo be granted internationally supervised independence — a proposal strongly supported by the province's ethnic Albanians, the U.S. and most of the European Union, but vehemently opposed by Serbia and Russia, a traditional Serb ally.
Russia blocked the Ahtisaari plan. An additional period of negotiations failed to bridge the differences between the Serbs, who have offered wide autonomy, and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, who insist on independence.
Kosovo hopes for international recognition that could come on Monday when European Union ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium. Russia, which has veto power on the council, insists Kosovo is a Security Council issue — not an EU issue — and argues that Kosovo's move sets a dangerous precedent for separatist groups globally.
On Tuesday afternoon, a more formal and open debate is planned by the Security Council at Serbia's request. Churkin said Russia insisted it should be an open meeting, and the president of Serbia will attend.
However, diplomats said it was unlikely the council would be able to reach agreement on a resolution or statement.